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5 Mar 2008 : Column 480WH—continued

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that, within its criteria, the Post Office got it wrong for individual offices in his constituency—he touched on that—my advice to him is that the review process operates through Postwatch, which would say to the Post Office that it got it wrong. That starts on a local basis and builds up through the Post Office structure. Ultimately, Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail Group, will make a final
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decision. The decision does not come to Ministers, and I believe that that is right. I am not sure that Ministers should make decisions about which post office should close and which should stay open.

The financial implications are real. I cannot speak about the individual post offices in Mickleham, Abinger Hammer and the other attractive sounding places in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the average cost to Post Office Ltd of the post offices that are closing is £18,000 per branch per year. The Government are committed to subsidising the Post Office network and have contributed a significant amount of money to do so—£150 million a year—but even that cannot sustain a network in which three out of four offices lose money. The loss is some £18,000 per branch per year, depending on the individual circumstances of the branch.

One of the branches that the hon. Gentleman mentioned appears to be profitable from the sub-postmaster’s point of view. I would make two points on that. It may be profitable in terms of a retail business and the post office going together. Post Office Ltd obviously does not take into account the retail side. On the post office side alone, the sub-postmaster does not see the central infrastructure costs—things such as IT support, delivery of cash to pay benefits, delivery of various Government forms such as passport forms and so on—for supporting the branch. They do not appear in his or her branch accounts, but when both the central infrastructure costs and the payments to the sub-postmaster themselves are taken into account, three out of four branches lose money, including, I have to say, some relatively busy branches, depending on whether they are close to others and so on.

The hon. Gentleman disputed the customer usage figures given to him by Post Office Ltd for some of the
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individual branches in his constituency. He is right to say that we have asked the company to write to him about how they are calculated. Perhaps I should not go into them today, but the figures indicate that fewer than 200 customer transactions a week take place in some of the branches that he mentioned. I appreciate the value that his local communities put on the branches, but a relatively small number of transactions take place in some of them on a weekly basis.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s points. I also appreciate the nature of his constituency. Because it has many small villages and towns, it has 29 post offices in the first place. I appreciate that the closure process is difficult, but even with the large subsidies that the Government have put into the network and have guaranteed for the next few years, some closures are, unfortunately, necessary. That is the difficult process that we are going through at present.

The Post Office criteria for access are that, broadly speaking, most of the population in urban areas should be within 1 mile of a post office and, in rural areas, within 3 miles. Other factors are also taken into account. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the criteria are wrong, he should ask Postwatch if it would be willing to refer the decisions on some individual branches to appeal. That is the way to deal with the issue. I cannot make decisions about individual branches, nor should I be able to.

The process is difficult, but at the end of it there will still be a larger number of post offices than all the banks put together, and three times as many post offices as outlets of the five major supermarket chains put together. I hope that the network will be more stable in future.

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Portable Antiquities Scheme

4.30 pm

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr. Benton, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to address this issue in this short debate.

Over the past 10 years, the field of antiquities in England and Wales has been transformed—there is no other word for it—by the Treasure Act 1996 and by the portable antiquities scheme. After years of campaigning and lobbying, pressure and private Member’s Bills, led by number of people, particularly Lord Poole in the other place and Sir Anthony Grant in the House—and, in a small way, myself—the Treasure Act came into force in 1997. The portable antiquities scheme was started in the same year and it effectively animated and augmented the 1996 Act, which requires a small proportion of archaeological finds that qualify as treasure to be reported and offered to museums.

The portable antiquities scheme, which is a voluntary scheme, complements the 1996 Act by encouraging anyone who finds an archaeological object to report it to a finds liaison officer at a local museum. There are 49 such finds officers throughout England and Wales, from Cornwall to Durham and from Bristol to Suffolk. The scheme is administered by the British Museum on behalf of the Museums, Libraries, and Archive Council.

The effect of the scheme has been extraordinary. In 2007, 77,500 objects were recorded on the online database that now contains, after 10 years, 320,000 objects and 160,000 images. That is the largest database of its kind in the world, and it hugely extends our understanding of our post-iron age world. I say “post-iron age” because almost all the finds have been discovered by metal detectors, so we do not discover quite as many pre-iron age objects, which are discovered by chance or other means. In such areas of archaeology, which account for a great deal of our past, the effect has been extraordinary.

The centre for the scheme in Staffordshire, in and around my constituency, is the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent in the middle of my constituency. North Staffordshire is an interesting area, archaeologically. A gentleman called Mr. Tony Rhodes, a metal detectorist, found a bronze age sword that was 2,500 years old a couple of years before the scheme came into effect, unfortunately. However, that sword sits proudly in our local museum. Recently, a unique copper alloy Roman bowl, now known as the Staffordshire moorlands pan, was discovered. The names of four of the forts on Hadrian’s wall are written on it. It is of considerable archaeological importance and was acquired jointly by the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, Tullie House, the excellent museum in Carlisle, and the British Museum. With such finds, the scheme is redrawing the archaeological map of England and Wales. In the last three years, its data has revealed 24 new Roman settlements in Wiltshire alone, which is an increase of 15 per cent. Suddenly, the Roman-Britannic map of Wiltshire is being changed because of finds under the scheme, so hon. Members can see how important the scheme is.

If the portable antiquities scheme is such a great success, why do we need this debate and what is the problem? This year, thanks to good lobbying by my
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hon. Friend the Minister and the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there was a good comprehensive spending review settlement. Everybody who is interested in this area has probably already congratulated both my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, neatly, the subsequent Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, his successor, who was at the time Chief Secretary to the Treasury and happened to provide this good settlement. Everybody was happy and all the national museums, including the British Museum, received inflation-proof increases. The important Renaissance programme in the regions, for example, was ring-fenced and was similarly well treated, but, bafflingly, the portable antiquities scheme was not.

The portable antiquities scheme is administered by the MLA and it was not ring-fenced. The core budget of the MLA will be cut by 25 per cent. over the next three years. The implication is that the scheme will suffer in the same way. The MLA has proposed that the scheme’s budget for 2008-09 be frozen at its present level of £1.3 million.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Staffordshire is interesting in this sense and so is Leicestershire, which is why I tabled written questions in November, February and March and oral questions in January. My hon. Friend mentioned the £1.3 million, but does he think that the Minister should tell the House that, even at that level, redundancies are still likely to take place, including some valuable education officers who are crucial to the success of the scheme in future? That is why I am seeing the local finds liaison officer in my constituency office on Friday. The PAS may be secure in the short term, but it is still short of funds because of its success.

Mark Fisher: My hon. Friend is right. If the budget is frozen at its present level of £1.3 million, that will in effect be a cut in real terms, because to stand still and not expand the scheme at all would require £1.49 million. If that £690,000 is not found, three posts in the PAS will be lost.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has eloquently described how the scheme has transformed the archaeological map of Britain, nationally. Is not the real fear that, unless the scheme is properly funded, we will end up simply with a series of regional schemes that are not properly co-ordinated?

Mark Fisher: Absolutely. The regional element is important and feeds into Renaissance in the regions. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) will know about a wonderful museum in Leicester that is directed by a Mrs. Sarah Levitt, who, by a curious coincidence, is the sister of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). Mrs. Levitt does an extremely good job in a distinguished, important museum.

If the scheme’s budget is frozen at its present level, there would be a real cut. These are small sums in Government terms but big sums for the scheme. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is right: a national scheme could be reduced to a local scheme.
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The local element is crucial in all of this, of course, but it needs context. The custodianship of the British Museum, under the directorship of Mr. Neil MacGregor, is crucial and gives credibility, stability and good international, scholarly expertise and contacts for the scheme to operate. We need both detailed local work on finds and the umbrella of the British Museum, with its scholars, to make sense of the individual finds and put them into a much wider archaeological map.

Already, even at the present time, we have too few finds liaison officers, although the scheme operates well. There is only one finds liaison officer for the whole of the north-east—from Teeside up to the Scottish border—which is an area of incredible archeological importance and includes Hadrian’s wall and many other important sites. There is just one officer for that whole area.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con) rose—

Mark Fisher: The hon. Gentleman who wishes to intervene may talk about his own area, but in Berkshire and Oxfordshire—he will correct me in a moment if I am wrong—I do not think that there is anyone in post. Again, that is a most important archaeological area.

Mr. Vaizey: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is correct: at the moment Oxfordshire does not have a finds liaison officer because of uncertainty over the budget. Is he also aware that even when a finds liaison officer is appointed, they will not be able to cover Berkshire any more, so that area will also be without an officer?

Mark Fisher: I did not know that. Berkshire is an extremely important area, which covers the Thames valley and a lot of settlements, so it should not have only one officer. We need to expand the scheme and it seems tragic not to do so when it is such a success. If the scheme is frozen and cut over the next year, it will be a tragedy.

Generally, there is much concern in the House about this matter. It is interesting to note that such a number of people have attended this debate as they are sometimes not very well attended occasions. That reflects the concern about this issue. Almost everybody in the Chamber has signed the early-day motion from last year, which now has almost 280 signatures. That is an extraordinarily large number of signatures for a matter of cultural significance. When the budget settlement for the scheme was mooted last year, I visited Mr. Roy Clare of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with a number of other former arts Ministers—Lord Inglewood, Baroness Morris, Lord Howarth and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who sadly is not here, but who takes a great interest in these matters. In addition, we all formally and informally talked to the Minister and received a sympathetic hearing on all sides—I hope that it will also be an effective hearing.

There is concern in the House about the matter and that is reflected by what has been taking place. It is a wonderful scheme and it would be terribly sad if it was cut and held back. The scheme needs to be sustained and to do so requires very modest sums of money. It also needs to have a secure future. We need to know
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that there will be a three-year settlement at the very least, so that the British Museum, the MLA and everybody else can plan for the future of the scheme.

The scheme is too good to be cut, and there are solutions to hand that I shall briefly mention. The British Museum has been responsible for administering the scheme and has done so very well and therefore understands the importance of the scheme. Unlike the MLA, the British Museum has scholars rooted in the scheme and therefore it seems to be the ideal repository for it. If responsibility for the scheme could be transferred from the MLA to the British Museum—I gather from Mr. MacGregor that the British Museum is happy for that to happen—a real understanding and ownership of the scheme could develop. That would not only give the scheme security and continuity, but would send out the message to professional people and, crucially, amateurs and metal detector users around the country that the scheme is safe, is in good hands and will be secure.

I hope that the Minister will say that things will be worked out and that the British Museum will either be responsible for the scheme in future or will be more involved. I also hope that she will inform us that the funding will be secure and inflation proof, particularly over the next few years. That is crucial. After the budget settlement, I know that it might be quite difficult for the Minister to do, but these are relatively small sums and I hope, with her great skill, she will find something in a side-drawer of her Department that will enable her to make up the balance. The scheme is of real importance and is admired throughout the world. I understand that somebody from the British Museum who is involved with the scheme talked to Congress in Washington last year because there is such widespread national interest. We are pioneering the world of archaeology with the scheme as it incorporates and involves non-professionals and professional scholars in a quite remarkable way. The scheme touches the bases of scholarship and of widening access. We, in the House of Commons, cannot afford to let the scheme stall or flounder.

4.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) on securing the debate. I would like to acknowledge formally his huge contribution to getting us where we are today. We have a scheme of which everybody is rightly proud. The information he has given us supports the importance of the scheme in the ecology of what we have in relation to archaeology in this country. Congratulations to my hon. Friend on that. I also acknowledge that there has been considerable concern about the funding of the scheme from a number of hon. Members who are present.

For the record, I shall say a little about the scheme itself. My hon. Friend was right to say that the scheme was first set up as a pilot—probably when he was Minister with responsibilities for these matters—to complement the treasure system put in place to administer the Treasure Act 1996. The interesting thing about the 1996 Act is that it obliges those who find objects that fall under the definition of treasure to
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report them to their local coroner within 14 days so that we as a society can have the security of knowing that such objects will be held.

In a way, the scheme celebrates local history. What I have seen of the scheme during my time as Minister is that it is a powerful way in which to engage local people, particularly those who use metal detectors. It allows people to understand, celebrate and commemorate local history and it is great to see that happening. People do find some absolutely wonderful things. I have seen some really exciting and interesting objects. Those who use metal detectors are a bit like fishermen fishing on the land or on dry territory. It is a very lonely experience for those who use metal detectors, but it is incredibly rewarding to uncover something that helps us to better understand our past.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the scheme has been a huge success. The way in which we have run the scheme has been a win-win for everybody. The finder and the landowner are rewarded for their efforts in bringing the treasure into the public domain and the public benefit by being able to see and learn from the important relics of their community’s past. The other joy of the scheme is that it is pretty accessible. Everyone, whether a post-graduate researcher at one of our top universities or a young person entering secondary school, can access the information provided by the scheme on the website. Some 320,000 separate objects are catalogued on the website and are accessible to us all. In 2006, which is the last year for which we have figures, 250,000 individual users accessed the data, which are incredibly important for students and currently being used for a number of PhD theses and other dissertations.

On the funding of the scheme, which is what I think hon. Members want to discuss, although we had a good settlement—I am grateful for the kind comments of my hon. Friend—it was nevertheless a tight fiscal settlement. We have tried to ensure that the money went into priorities right across the Department for Culture, Media and Sport family. My hon. Friend will know that we ring-fenced some money for the renaissance programme. That was the right thing to do. The renaissance programme has been hugely effective in improving the quality and the environment of many of our regional museums. If we consider the figures on who accesses the treasures, as a result of the renaissance programme and regional infrastructure developments, people who in the past would probably never have gone into a museum now take the first step across the threshold and enjoy the benefits that that can bring them. That was a very good way of determining how to use a budget which, although better than many other budgets, was not as much as we would have needed to carry on all the programmes and expansions of programmes that we would have liked. We took a priority decision.

The portable antiquities scheme sits as part of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council family. My hon. Friend is right to say that the MLA has had a considerable cut in its financial settlement and must look for considerable savings. Even with the best will in the world, we could not have protected entirely the portable antiquities scheme from the fiscal constraints
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that we all face. Getting a flat cash settlement for 2008-09, which is what it has, is not bad in relation to many other organisations that we fund, which are having to look to the future. Every organisation should constantly examine how it functions and how it can renew itself, to see whether it can eke out efficiencies. We should not protect any organisation from that endeavour.

Mark Fisher: I think that hon. Members will have considerable sympathy with what the Minister is saying, but she knows very well, being extremely experienced, that a standstill budget is much easier for a large organisation to handle than it is for a small organisation, although it is difficult for anybody. There is no leeway in something tiny such as the portable antiquities scheme. As I said in my speech, a standstill budget for that scheme, stuck at £1.3 million, will mean a cut in real terms—a cut in field officers, who are already very thin on the ground.

Margaret Hodge: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that although some of our budgets may look larger in their totality, they are, of course, distributed to many relatively small organisations. We could say the same of the renaissance programme. We could have taken a bit more money off the renaissance programme and put a bit more money into the MLA, but the impact of that on a programme that is just beginning to blossom and yield results could have been deeply damaging. We could say the same of most of the non-departmental public bodies that are responsible for distributing the resources that we give them. I am not sure that the portable antiquities scheme can be protected any more than any of our other bodies.

However, I have listened very hard, as the MLA and others have, to the representations that we have had from all hon. Members here today and others who have written to me or made representations either to me or directly to the MLA. I am pleased to say that an agreement in principle has now been reached between the British Museum and the MLA to ensure that the British Museum takes the lead and controls and runs the scheme in the future.

However—there are always provisos and these things will have to be negotiated—the British Museum and the MLA will undertake jointly a review of the way in which the portable antiquities scheme is run. That is right and proper to ensure that we maximise value for money. Then a financial negotiation will have to take place between the two organisations to determine what the diary should be after the review has taken place, so that we are clearer as to where we are.

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